Exploding watermelons

China’s growing list of eco-disasters

China watch
Farmers in eastern China recently had to deal with the pulpy aftermath of thousands of watermelons exploding in their fields.

“The flying pips, shattered shells and wet shrapnel still haunt farmer Liu Mingsuo after an effort to chemically boost his fruit crop went spectacularly wrong,” wrote Jonathan Watts in a May 17 story in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian. Liu and several other farmers suffered this fate after applying the growth accelerator forchlorfenuron to acres of melons in an effort to increase the size—and thus the selling price—of their fruit.

Apparently they applied the chemical to the fruit too late in the season and under too-wet conditions, causing the melons to “explode like ‘landmines,’ ” as Watts put it.

According to NTD Television, Liu threw away over 11,000 pounds of burst watermelons, and Chinese farmers whose watermelons are still intact “are having difficulty selling them, because fruit markets fear they could explode later.”

Forchlorfenuron, under the best of conditions, causes watermelons to become misshapen and have mostly white seeds. It is allowed for use on kiwi and grape crops in the United States.

The saga of the exploding watermelons follows a number of reports of unsavory farming practices in China, including the discovery of cadmium-tainted rice sold within the country, and tons of pork soaked in the detergent borax to make it look like beef.

Hexane’s hex
In more China news, the toxic chemical hexane—used in the process of isolating protein from soybeans for use in a number of nutrition bars and soy-meat alternatives (see “What’s in that energy bar?” CN&R, May 19)—has been at the center of a factory-worker uproar over its use as a cleaning fluid for brand-new Apple iPhone touch-screens produced in a Chinese factory owned by Taiwanese company Wintek.

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that, on the heels of a lawsuit against Wintek, the workers wrote a letter to Apple head Steve Jobs detailing their concerns over failed health, forced job loss for those accepting compensation and lack of continued health-care for hexane-related problems resulting from continued exposure over the period May 2008 to August 2009.

Chronic exposure to hexane is known to cause irreversible nerve damage, even paralysis. A number of workers at the factory were hospitalized with numb hands; swollen, painful feet; and faintness. One died.

“This is a killer, a killer that strikes invisibly,” said the letter. “[M]onthly profits at Apple and Wintek have gone up by tens of millions every month” during the time that hexane—instead of the previously used alcohol—was used to clean the screens. Hexane dries faster than alcohol, does not leave streaks and less is required, resulting in reduced labor and supply costs, and increased production. The company said it has since gone back to using alcohol.

Alexander Cilensek, Chapman Elementary’s new chef.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

Chef de Chapman
In cheerier news, local chef Alexander Cilensek (whose extensive résumé includes Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Tin Roof Bakery & Café) recently partnered with Chapman Elementary School under First Lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools program. Cilensek (pictured) will begin work in late May with Chapman summer-school students doing cooking demos and getting the school-garden planted for fall harvest. Stay tuned.